Healthy conflict can play a vital role in creating intimate marriage relationships. Unfortunately, simply understanding the value of healthy conflict won’t help you deal with those nasty conflict issues that seem to pop up at the most unexpected and inopportune times.
In this article you are going to discover how you can work through a real issue. What kind of issue should you pick to work on? This point is critical: Whenever you are working on changing deep-seated behavior patterns and learning new skills, it’s always important to start with something fairly simple.
It will also be helpful for you to pick something that is primarily your issue and not your spouse’s—something that has frustrated, disappointed, discouraged, or bugged you. For learning purposes think about a low-ticket, low-priority conflict issue. It should be something you are concerned about but not something that triggers a lot of emotional and relational baggage. At the end of the article we’ve included an outline that you can copy and use in working through this and other conflicts.
Remember that these seven steps are merely a suggested starting place. This is one way to do it. Most of the couples we’ve worked with have taken this and modified it to fit their own unique personalities, relationship, and conflict issues.
Before Conflict Arises
The best place to start dealing with conflict is before a conflict arises. That’s right, before a conflict arises. Every couple has their own combination of attitudes, emotions, and circumstances that set them up for conflict, but most couples are totally unaware of what they are. As you begin to identify the factors that precede your most frequent conflicts, you will discover a gold mine of insights to help you deal more effectively with those conflicts once they arise. In fact, many couples have told us that this simple process not only helped them clarify and reduce their conflicts but also eliminate many of those silly, unnecessary conflicts that can flare up into a forest fire and ruin an entire evening or weekend.
Start by identifying your frequent conflict issues and determine their seriousness. Many couples find that a majority of their conflicts center around sex, money, parenting, in-laws, leisure time, and holidays. Dale and Liz discovered that over half of their conflicts were in two categories: finances and leisure time.
Next, identify the factors that make you most vulnerable to conflict. Dale found that he was most vulnerable when he had been working too hard and was under pressure to meet some deadline. Busyness and over-commitment increased the probability that he would engage in conflict. Liz realized that she was more vulnerable when the kids had been particularly difficult or when she and Dale hadn’t had adequate time together as a couple. If you’re not sure what your conflicts center around, ask your spouse, your children, or a friend. They’ll be glad to tell you.
Next, ask yourself which of your behaviors might sabotage constructive conflict. For example, does the volume of your voice increase? Do your attacks become more personal? Do you bring up past mistakes and failures, start talking about your spouse’s mother, or perhaps exaggerate and say things such as “You always…” and “You never…” Are you consumed with communicating your point that you don’t make a sincere effort to understand your partner’s concerns?
As Dale and Liz answered this question, they discovered that both of them had some unhealthy habits that contributed to their failure in resolving conflicts. Liz acknowledged, “My biggest problem behaviors are that I interrupt Dale and at times complete his sentences for him. I have difficulty giving Dale time to think about an issue before discussing it, and I tend to want to solve a problem that we haven’t clearly defined.” Dale realized, “I need to listen for Liz’s heart and not just for the bottom line, and I need to stay with the conversation and not give in to my tendency to withdraw as soon as I get frustrated or uncomfortable.”
When Conflict Arises
Regardless of the severity of the conflict, we’ve found that constructive conflict management is always easier when you have a plan. Over the past twenty years we’ve worked with hundreds of couples who have told us that the following seven steps have helped them turn conflict from something they feared to an opportunity to increase understanding and intimacy.
- Whose issue is it?
- What kind of issue is it?
- Is there more than one issue involved?
- What is my spouse’s core concern?
- What is my core concern?
1. Define the Issue. Pray, Listen, and Seek Understanding
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem, set aside ample time to discuss each other’s perception of the issue, and work toward an agreed-upon definition. The majority of couples who come for marriage counseling have a history of emotionally painful and relationally damaging conflicts over issues that have never been defined or clarified. For many years we were one of those couples.
Remember this: You will never resolve what you don’t understand. Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice (let alone criticism) from someone unless you feel that they are trying to understand you. If you want your spouse to understand you, the starting place is for you to take the initiative in understanding them. Answering the following questions will help you better understand and define the issue.
Whose issue is it?
Usually one person has more invested in a particular issue than their spouse. Is this an issue that one of you feels more strongly about than the other? Where did those strong opinions and feelings come from? Is it a recent or a long-standing issue?
What kind of issue is it?
Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes. Some issues are interpersonal, some related to ideas and opinions, and others relate to fairly low-level daily concerns.
Is there more than one issue involved?
Most people (including Carrie and me) have spent hours engaged in conflicts that involved several issues. It’s hard enough to manage one issue. It’s almost impossible to deal with several issues at the same time. If there is more than one issue, decide which is most urgent. Which is most important? What order should we take them in? If you can’t agree, then choose the least volatile issue first. If you can’t agree on that, then just flip a coin. Yes, that may sound silly, but we’ve been flipping coins for years and it works.
What is my spouse’s core concern?
A critical part of defining an issue is to take time to understand the heart and the perspective of your spouse. In fact, this may be one of the greatest contributions healthy conflict makes to the growth of intimacy in a marriage. Proverbs 4:7 says, “Though it cost you all you have, get understanding” (emphasis added).
Listening is one of the most powerful intimacy builders in any relationship because listening leads to understanding. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). When you choose to listen to another person, you are saying that you value them and their concerns and that they are worth taking the time to understand. An open ear is the sure sign of an open heart.
Listening sounds like a simple thing, but the tragic truth is that most of us aren’t good listeners. Studies have shown that most people can listen five times as fast as someone else can speak. This means that during a conversation, especially one involving conflict, it’s easy for your mind to wander to what you’re going to say and how you are going to defend yourself when the other person stops speaking.
We don’t understand that there is a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing happens, but listening is a choice. It is a choice to focus on what the other person is saying and try to understand what they really mean. Listening is a form of love, it is a gift, and it is essential to achieving the levels of understanding that will lead to true intimacy.
Notice, we’re not asking you to agree with your spouse. We’re only suggesting that you invest a few minutes to try to see things through their eyes, to hear things through their ears, and to feel things with their heart. Put yourself in their shoes and see what the issue looks like. We’ve had many couples tell us that at the end of this exercise they realized that what they had thought was a major problem was nothing more than a misunderstanding, and they didn’t need to go any further in the process, thus saving themselves a lot of unnecessary pain and wasted time and energy.
What is my core concern?
After you’ve chosen to listen, hear, and understand your spouse, it will be important for you to identify and clarify your core concern. Is it only one or are there several of them?
Dale and Liz made the wise decision to start with a fairly safe conflict. They agreed to work on their frustrating differences in estimating time. They narrowed it down even further to the times when they were together and Liz wanted to make a “quick” stop to pick up something.
“One of the conflicts Liz and I had for years had to do with our different sense of timing, especially when it came to her shopping,” Dale said. At this point in their marriage, Dale realized their personality differences were a key part of this conflict. “I’m structured, precise, and organized. I probably glance at my wrist every ten minutes to check the time, whether I need to or not. Liz is a sort of spontaneous, free-spirited person who owns a watch but isn’t sure why.”
Sometimes when they were out shopping, they would come to a store and Liz would tell Dale, “I need to run in here for something.” Dale would ask, “How long will you be?” and she would give him her usual answer: “Oh, no more than fifteen minutes.”
In Dale’s mind that’s what it meant, exactly fifteen minutes. In Liz’s mind it could mean up to an hour! When the fifteen minutes was up Dale would begin to get frustrated, and it didn’t take long for his primary emotion of frustration to turn into the secondary emotion of anger. Finally, when she did return, his unhealthy anger would take over and they would get into it. He accused her of being inconsiderate and thoughtless, and she accused him of being rigid and inflexible.
Once you define the problem, and before going any further, commit this specific conflict—as well as your desire to deal with conflict in a healthier and more mature manner—to God in prayer. We’ll come back to the value and relational power of prayer when we look at Step # 7.
2. How Important is it? Is it a High-ticket or a Low-Ticket Item?
Once you have defined the issue, the next step is to determine just how important it is. Many of the conflicts in marriage can be traced to personal idiosyncrasies, minor annoyances, or passing irritations.
Researchers tell us that only 31 percent of a couple’s major continuing disagreements are about issues that they will be able to resolve. The rest, 69 percent, are about irresolvable perpetual problems—that is, fundamental differences in personalities or basic needs—that will never get resolved but that we need to learn how to manage and deal with.
Some differences demand confrontation, while others are simply a part of living with someone else. We all have our frustrating annoyances and idiosyncrasies and so do our spouses. It’s just that ours seem so much less weird, unusual, and even bizarre than theirs.
Before you allow an issue to consume too much of your time, ask yourself, “How important is this?” Is it a high-ticket or a low-ticket item? On a scale of one to ten, a low-ticket item would only score a one through a five. A low-ticket item is something that may irritate or frustrate you, but on the Richter Scale of relationships it really isn’t that big a deal. Squeezing the toothpaste in at the wrong end or not loading the dishwasher the way you’d like it to be loaded are low-ticket issues.
A high-ticket item would rate a six through a ten. High-ticket items would include issues such as how affection is expressed, how important decisions are made, who decides where we spend our vacations, how finances are allocated, where we live.
High levels of emotion don’t mean that it’s a high-ticket issue, and low levels of emotion don’t mean it’s a low-ticket issue. When people have strong emotions about an issue they assume that it’s a high-ticket, but in fact it may be something fairly insignificant.
The next point is critical. Just because an issue is low-ticket to you doesn’t mean it will be low-ticket to your spouse. If you don’t treat what your spouse perceives to be a high-ticket issue as high-ticket, then you are discounting them and their reality.
For Liz the time issue was low-ticket. She didn’t have a problem when Dale took more time than he thought he would and didn’t understand why it seemed such a problem for him when she took longer. While she rated the issue a two, Liz was surprised to hear that Dale gave it a five. “When I first became aware of her tendency to do this I would have given it a one or a two,” Dale said, “but since it happens so frequently, even when I’ve told her it bugs me, it has become even more frustrating and irritating. In fact, at times it feels like a seven or eight.” While this didn’t make sense to Liz, she realized that it was something worth dealing with.
3. Ask Yourself: “What is My Contribution to The Problem?”
It’s amazing that whenever there is a conflict we usually have little difficulty identifying our spouse’s contribution to the problem, but we can be substantially blinded to our own. It’s fascinating how very clear many of us can be about how “they” need to change, what “they” could do differently, and how “they” could listen better.
It’s easy for us to pray, “Lord, please change them. Please help them see things as clearly as I do. Please give them the same wisdom and insight you’ve given me.” For over ten years I served on the board of directors and national speaking team for Promise Keepers, and I would somewhat jokingly tell the men, “It’s easy for men to pray, ‘Change my wife, O Lord’ rather than, in the works of a popular praise song, ‘Change my life, O Lord.”
Proverbs 25:12 (TLB) tells us, “It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism.” Those are sound words. Listen to what the other person has to say. Even if 90 percent of what they are saying is invalid, look for the 10 percent that might be true. Look for even the 1 percent that God could use in your life to help you mature.
Dale and Liz both acknowledged their contribution to their conflict over shopping. Liz realized that what often caused her to take longer than she thought was that, once in a store, she saw some other things she forgot she needed and decided to go ahead and pick them up. This often took more time than she thought. Dale realized that he was much more rigid than he needed to be. When some of his stops took more time, he always mentioned it.
4. Do I Need to Apologize or Ask for Forgiveness?
As you think and pray through the third step, you may become aware of something you have done that you need to apologize or ask forgiveness for. Early in our marriage I learned that I could be right, but go about being right in a wrong or an unhealthy way. In the intensity of an emotional discussion it’s easy to say things or do things or express ourselves in a tone of voice that discounts and wounds our partner. Over the next few years I discovered that there were some things I needed to apologize for. My intentions had been good, but my words had wounded the person I loved the most. When I realized how thoughtless and unkind I had been, it was easy for me to apologize and ask Carrie to forgive me.
Since Liz didn’t think she had done anything wrong she didn’t see any reason to ask for forgiveness. However, as she listened to Dale she realized that there had been numerous occasions when her taking more time than he had allowed for had caused him to be late for or even miss another commitment. With weariness and frustration in his voice, Dale turned to Liz and said, “There are times when an errand you say will take only fifteen minutes ends up taking over an hour and it’s not a problem. But there are other times when it really puts me behind, makes me late for something, and makes me look irresponsible. I don’t like that.” Dale went on to say that what Liz saw as unhealthy anger was really the primary emotion of frustration. He had never actually identified it or tried to express it in a mature and healthy way. As Liz better understood how her choices were impacting Dale in a negative way she realized her need to both apologize and ask for forgiveness.
5. Choose Radical Responsibility
Radical responsibility is our way of saying that we need to take personal responsibility to choose what we can do differently and not wait around for our spouse to do something different. It means that we make a unilateral decision, regardless of what our spouse chooses to say or do, to seek wisdom and understanding in dealing with conflict.
Regardless of the habits you saw growing up and those that may have characterized you for most of your life, you can teach yourself to take radical responsibility to listen, to understand, to accept, to be kind, to be patient, to forgive, and to love even when your partner may not be making that same choice. In fact, we are most like our Lord Jesus Christ when we love in this kind of situation.
Radical responsibility can involve cultivating the “power of the compliment.” Practice complimenting your spouse. Practice catching them being healthy, scanning for the sovereign presence in their life. Research shows that the most effective way to modify someone’s behavior—to get them to do more or less of something—is to reinforce or positively reward that person when that individual is doing what we want them to do. In other words, catch your spouse in the act of getting it right and bring on the fanfare! A well-timed compliment, hug, or note of appreciation goes a lot further than a heart-to-heart about marital dissatisfaction.
When Dale and Liz looked at Step #5, Dale immediately responded: “Over the years I’ve fussed and stewed and been frustrated by your being late, and the only times I’ve said something it’s been negative, critical, and unkind. What I’ve said has usually come out of an unhealthy anger. I’ve never really tried to help you understand how your behavior was a problem for me. I’ve also never thanked you for the many times that you’ve kept your word as to the time it would take.” That’s a great illustration of radical responsibility. He didn’t wait for Liz to say something. He took responsibility for what he could do better.
By the time you’ve gone through the first five steps, you may have no more need to go on to Step #6. Often couples discover that what they thought was a big problem was nothing more than a minor irritation or miscommunication that has disappeared. But if you do need to continue, you will be in a much better place to take the next step.
6. Choose What You Both Can do Differently.
At this point you are working on identifying a mutually acceptable solution. Ah, this sounds so easy. Over time it can become easy, but in the early stages of changing your deep-seated conflict patterns it may be rather difficult. Through our seminars and workshops we discovered that it was much easier for us to help other couples work through these steps than it was to work through them ourselves. Actually it was very embarrassing for us when we came to this realization. Don’t be upset or disappointed. Don’t give up. It’s normal! You are normal!
When it comes to Step #6, be sure to set aside ample time for discussion and prayer. Find a quiet place with no interruptions. Take the phone off the hook. Remember that this step involves choosing to bargain some of your personal needs for some of your relationship needs.
In our seminars we’ve had people raise their hands and ask, “But what if we can’t agree on a mutually acceptable solution?” After a brief pause one of us usually smiles and responds by saying, “Well, if you can’t agree on a solution, reach into your pocket, pull out a coin, ask the other person if they want heads or tails, and flip it.” This usually brings a lot of laughter, but we’re quick to tell them that we are serious. As we said earlier, we’ve become professional coin flippers. Hey, it’s better to try something that might work than to continue doing something that is a proven failure. Remember that “crazy” is to find out what doesn’t work and then to keep on doing it.
If you’ve had a similar issue that you were able to resolve, how did you do it? What did you do or say that allowed you to either resolve or live with the differences in a way that was acceptable?
If you’ve never been able to manage or resolve a similar issue, make a list of what you’ve tried. You may find it helpful to talk to some other individuals or couples who have been in similar situations. What worked for them? What did they learn as they worked through their conflict? Be careful not to ignore a potential solution just because you don’t think it will work. Get as many ideas as possible on your list. Look them over. Talk about them. You may find that pieces of two or three different ideas come together to provide a solution neither one of you had considered. If the first solution you try doesn’t work, then move on to the next option. It may take three or four attempts before you find something that works. Couples who follow through with these suggestions find that over time there are very few issues they can’t deal with.
In Step #6, list the specific steps involved and who is responsible to do what. This is an important part that most people leave out. What are the specific steps involved in the solution? Who is going to do what? When will they do it? For how long will they do it? When will you let each other know that you have done what you agreed to do? If your issue is finances, who is going to record the checks, and when will you meet each month to check your progress? If the issue is child care, who will be responsible to check out the different options? Who will make the calls, and when will you do it?
Dale and Liz made a list of seven changes they would be willing to make:
- If Liz wants to make a quick stop, she will only pick up what she said she was going in for and nothing else.
- Liz can make her estimate and then add an additional five minutes as a buffer. If the errand takes a little longer than expected, no problem. If she comes back earlier, that’s all the better.
- Dale can offer to go into the store to pick up the item.
- Dale can “mellow out” about Liz being exact in her estimate of how long an errand might take. If she is within ten minutes, that will be considered the same as being on time.
- If it takes more time than Liz thought, she will let Dale know why.
- If Dale has a time crunch to get to another commitment, he will let Liz know. If he doesn’t, he can bring a book to read since that’s one of his favorite things to do.
- They can do the errand together.
7. Pray About It, Review It and Do It!
Pray About It
The first part of Step #7 is so obvious, but it took us years to learn it. There is an enormous relational value to prayer that we didn’t begin to discover until we were about ten years into our marriage. Oh, we knew that prayer was important. We knew all the passages and promises on prayer. We had read books on prayer together, and we talked to others about the importance of prayer, but we didn’t really pray together, especially during times of conflict. What we probably needed to do the most during our conflicts was something we tended to do the least, if at all.
Over the years, God showed us something that actually transformed the way we deal with conflict and transformed our marriage. We discovered there are several relational nutrients to prayer that are unbelievably powerful intimacy builders.
Relational nutrient #1 is that prayer produces an increases perspective of each other’s heart. When I hear Carrie pray, I hear a desire of her heart that I often miss in the heat of a conflict. I hear her love for the Lord, her love for me, and her desire to be a godly wife and friend to me. I hear her hurts, discouragement, disappointment, and frustration through a different set of ears. It’s amazing how simply hearing my wife pray can open up my heart to her and to the Lord and change a combative heart into a collaborative heart.
Relational nutrient #2 is that prayer produces increased power for our relationships. When I hear Gary pray, I’m reminded that in the big scheme of things the issue probably isn’t as earth-shattering as I thought. I’m reminded that God is more concerned about our experiencing love and intimacy than we are. I’m reminded that while I may feel drained, He has promised to supply all of my needs and I can trust Him to be a promise keeper. Prayer often empowers me not to give in or give up.
Relational nutrient #3 is that prayer produces increased passion for God and one another. When we spend time in prayer, we discover that God gives us a bit more of His mind and His heart for us and for our situation. We understand that the most important result of the conflict may not be the solution but how we choose to honor, love, and respect each other in the process of dealing with the conflict. The more we focus on God’s love for us and His promise to help us love each other with His love, the more we actually find ourselves wanting to understand, listen to, and work with each other. On many occasions, prayer has dissolved or significantly weakened the stone walls we had erected between us. In prayer God infuses our hearts with a perspective, a power, and a passion that only He can give us.
So what does praying together actually look like? It can be as simple as joining hands and spending sixty seconds in silent prayer. It can involve each partner praying aloud for one or two minutes and then when finished, squeezing the hand of the other so they can pray. When we started to pray during conflicts we didn’t take a lot of time. Even a little bit of time was helpful. Now, sixteen years later, we will sometimes spend much more time. However, the important thing is not how much time you spend, but that you do it!
Although they had rarely prayed together as a couple, Dale and Liz found this step to be the easiest one. They were so tired of doing the same old dysfunctional dance over and over again, of rooting around in the same old relational rut, that they embraced the real hope they had discovered in this simple seven-step process. “Actually,” Liz said, “by the time we finished our list in Step #6, the hardest part was over. All we had to do was pray about it and then do it.”
You’ve run from it, hid from it, fought about it, and cried over it, and now you have the opportunity to do it. It may be one of those issues you can resolve or one of those perpetual issues you need to figure out how to live with. You have defined the problem, considered your contribution to it, discussed possible solutions, agreed on where to start, and clarified who will do what. Now’s your chance to make it work—or to find out it doesn’t work. Either way, you both win. You are one step closer to discovering what will work to resolve or better manage the conflict, and in the process you’ve listened to, loved, and honored each other.
Don’t wait for the best time. Put your plan into action now. Failure isn’t trying something and finding it doesn’t work on the first try. Failure is continuing to stay stuck in the rut of what hasn’t worked in the past and probably won’t in the future.
When you’ve given your plan adequate time, it’s important to get together and discuss the results. How well has this solution worked? Were there any surprises? How could we improve it? How did I change? How did my partner change? What did I learn about myself from this conflict? What did I learn about our relationship? What did I learn about what I can do differently next time?